Traffic, bad driving and two children struck by cars - what will DC do to break its impasse near Powell?

DC FD/EMS ambulance at Powell Elementary, Dec 3 2015

Upshur and Taylor Streets between 13th and 14th Streets surrounding Powell Elementary are a mess in the mornings and afternoons when children are being dropped off and picked up by parents. The problems on both streets come from cars driving too fast and parents double-parking. This ends up with side-swipped cars, broken side mirrors and the very real potential for a tragedy. According to residents, it's been an ongoing issue for years.

This week was no different, except Thursday morning a 2nd grader was struck by a car as the student darted across Upshur Street from the park in front of Powell. Luckily, I hear the child only had some minor injuries and went to the hospital with a parent for further evaluation. This makes the second student hit by a car on Upshur in the past seven months, according to Powell principal O'Kiyyah Lyons-Lucas. (The first child only received minor injuries as well.) 

Coincidentally and unfortunately very timely, I approached ANC 4C Commissioner Zach Teutsch and Principal Lyons-Lucas at the beginning of this week to talk about the problems on Upshur and Taylor Streets. I reached out to Ms. Lyons-Lucas and we spoke Tuesday night.

After the previous incident of a child being struck, prior to when Ms. Lyons-Lucas joined the staff, the school approached both MPD and DDOT for assistance. According to Ms. Lyons-Lucas, at that time, MPD agreed to have an officer try to be present during drop-off and pickup to control parents from double-parking and slow down cars. But that apparently hasn't happened. (With crime as it is at the moment, is this the best place for an officer? An empowered crossing guard might be a better solution.)

An MPD officer shooing away double-parkers on Thursday, Dec 3rd. 

"As a school, we're becoming increasingly frustrated about this situation," Ms. Lyons-Lucas said to me. Traffic control is not a DCPS issue, so the school has no control. Ms. Lyons-Lucas has to rely upon DDOT, DPW and MPD to intervene and provide a solution. She said along with the frustration is the knowledge that she doesn't have the resources to offer too many solutions. "DDOT did a study over the summer, and determined that this was a problem with the parents, not something for DDOT," she said. "The suggestion was for a Kiss & Go drop off arrangement. We continued to work with DDOT to get this done, along with our recommendations for safety lights on the school zone signs."

However, the person at DDOT that was the main point of contact left DDOT, and since then the school has been stymied in getting any further progress on the issue, despite their efforts. Meanwhile, vehicular damage continues to occur, and incidents like Thursday's struck child remain strong possibilities, both things Ms. Lyons-Lucas hopes to avoid.

Until something is done, safety needs to be a priority. "Until we are able to get key stakeholders to the table [for a solution], as a community we need to be mindful that it's a school zone," she said. She echoed comments I've heard from parents saying that MPD has been absent from that stretch of Upshur during pick up and drop off. Without a police presence, cars are double-parking on Upshur and speeding up Taylor Street. There's been incidents of parents getting into verbal altercations with other parents who are double-parked, trying to get them to move their vehicles and stop blocking traffic. "I've had to go out and deal with parents arguing," Ms. Lyons-Lucas said. "It's not what should be happening. While the frustration is understandable, people should try to manage their anger and frustration and avoid confrontations. I want to avoid endangering children and families who are out there."

I reached out to Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd's office for a comment. Todd's office sent me a letter that he drafted today. Portions below: 

"Since being alerted of to this incident yesterday morning, I have worked in full coordination with Mayor Bowser in order to address this situation as quickly as possible. Yesterday, officials from District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the Department of Public Works (DPW), and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), were sent to the site of the accident to control traffic, enforce traffic violations, and meet with the principal of Powell Bilingual Elementary School, respectively. DDOT is also currently looking through its budget for the funds necessary to hire a crossing guard for the location of concern.

Public and neighborhood safety has been a top priority for me since taking office, and the safety of our children in particular is an absolute necessity. The lack of clear direction in addressing the concerns of the Powell community thus far is unacceptable. A child should not have to be injured in order for the government to become responsive to the needs of its community.

I believe that a proactive approach is the only option when it comes to public safety. ... I will also work to the best of my capacity to ensure that the appropriate agencies have the funding they need to address any and all safety concerns for the schools in Ward 4."

DDOT's suggestion of a Kiss & Go drop off sounds good, but may not be practical. "I have 80 staff in the building, and even then I have no one available to do this," Ms. Lyons-Lucas said. "We would need to rely upon parents volunteering to escort students from the cars to the classrooms."

Unfortunately, that's not practical. A crossing guard or other similar person needs to be at the school in the mornings and afternoons, helping traffic flow as smoothly as possible, deterring double-parking and parents staying too long in the short 15-min school zone.

As problematic as Upshur is, Taylor also is a long-standing problem. I've received more than a dozen emails from Taylor Street residents expressing their frustration with safety and vehicle damage since 2001. There have been repeated petitions for traffic calming measures on Taylor, all of which have failed to get changes from DDOT.

"The problems are two-fold," wrote said one resident who had her door ripped off by a speeding car as she was getting out. "Speed of the drivers coming off of Piney Branch and up the hill on Taylor Street, and the fact that the street is just barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other with a car parked on each side. It's a wide street, but it's not THAT wide.  Cars swerve to avoid oncoming traffic (because they are going too fast) and hit the parked cars."

The alley between Taylor and Upshur is also a problem, with cars speeding into the alley -- some honk as they enter the alley, as if a honk was safer than driving slowly.

One person wrote that she's seen three dogs hit by cars on Taylor -- cars that just sped by and kept going. Her concern is for the children who may step out into the street. "I've always had a hard time with the kids walking - especially young ones when I see them. Personally, I've held up traffic on purpose during school hours just by exercising some patience and common sense - its CHILDREN PRESENT." 

One resident said, "Every single house [on Taylor]... either had had their own cars sideswiped or knew someone who had."  And another wrote me that, "As a pedestrian, biker, and car owner who parks on [Taylor Street], I feel like no matter what type of transit I choose, I am in danger on our block and surrounding area.  It is unacceptable."

It's not just a Kiss & Go problem and solution. I think Upshur needs its classification changed between 13th and 14th Streets from "Collector" to a new designation that would allow the street to be widened at Powell to accommodate better student pick up and drop off. For as long as the school will be there, this problem will continue. Parents and children can be taught to be careful, but the next year there are all new parents and children coming in. And Powell is growing. 

As for Taylor Street, residents want better traffic calming measures, and more enforcement at Piney Branch. They want to stop spending money on fixing their cars, and they don't want to get hit by a car. And they want DDOT to take them seriously.

I've asked Brandon Todd's office, as well as the Mayor's office, for a community meeting on this topic so residents can share their concerns and the city can share plans to find an optimal solution.

Many parents as well as Ms. Lyons-Lucas will be attending the next MPD PSA meeting on December 17th, 7pm at 801 Shepherd Street. Feel free to come by and let MPD hear your safety concerns. 

Related: MPD steps up to the plate on Upshur Street (December 7, 2015)